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Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Vulcan Gas Company - Retrospective

Vulcan Gas Company
Vulcan Gas Company

Vulcan Gas Company

Vulcan Gas Company

Vulcan Gas Company

Vulcan Gas CompanyThis was the first successful psychedelic music venue in Austin, Texas located at 316 Congress Avenue. It opened on October 27, 1967, and closed around July 1970, one month before the opening of the Armadillo World Headquarters. Houston White, Gary Maxwell, Don Hyde, and Sandy Lockett originally opened the club, and Jim Franklin joined them in October 1967. By 1969, management was primarily by White and Lockett, along with Jim Franklin. Franklin, a noted poster artist, lived in the building—winters on the ground level behind the office, and summers in a loft near a skylight that opened onto the roof.

There was a substantial sound system installed by Sandy Lockett. Charlie Sauer was the principal audio engineer for the last year of operation. A platform suspended along the east wall of the building held eight slide projectors, three overhead projectors, and other special-effects equipment. Light-show and liquid-projection effects converted the stage, situated in the northwest corner, to a "living canvas." Special-effects artists used clock crystals filled with colored oil and original artwork to enhance the mood according to the type of music being performed.

The club featured original "counterculture" music accompanied by psychedelic light shows. Musicians who played at the Vulcan include Doug Sahm and groups such as the Conqueroo, 13th Floor Elevators, Shiva's Headband, and Canned Heat. The Vulcan became a venue for musicians of various styles who refused to perform Top forty pop tunes. The Vulcan provided a concert stage for unconventional bands of various genres, most notably the 13th Floor Elevators and the Conqueroo. By 1969, Shiva's Headband became the de facto house band, and in the first half of 1970 the Hub City Movers played frequently at the Vulcan.

The club had homemade benches and old church pews for the audience. The main floor, in front of the stage, was used for dancing. Smoking marijuana inside the club was discouraged and rare. Alcohol was discouraged, but common. The Vulcan was never able to get a liquor license, since Houston White, one of the owners, had been convicted (conviction later overturned) for selling some acid to an undercover cop. For some time, the Vulcan used space in the adjoining building to the north for selling sandwiches and soft drinks and as office space, but this auxiliary space was eventually abandoned to reduce rent.

The elevated stage at the northwest end of the hall was rustic, but the psychedelic light show offset that appearance. The light show was operated from a suspended platform on the south side of the room and near the ceiling - reached by a ladder. There was a large horizontal drain pipe across the back of the stage -- that pipe is prominent in many photos of performances at the Vulcan.

For much of the history, concerts were advertised with both large posters and letter sized handbills, similar to those produced for concerts at The Avalon Ballroom and The Fillmore. Gradually, the larger posters were sacrificed to save cost, and eventually the handbills were abandoned for the same reason.

Although the Vulcan is commonly associated with hippie blues, it also served as a model for other Austin music venues, such as the Armadillo World Headquarters, that were later established by some of the people associated with the Vulcan Gas Company, including Jim Franklin and Eddie Wilson.

Since there was no liquor license and beer could not be sold, almost all of the income came from gate receipts, typically $1.50 per person. That was the main cause of the club's ultimate demise. Johnny Winter, as a favor to White and Lockett, played a benefit concert, along with the Hub City Movers, March 10 & 11, 1970. Even that concert was not enough to offset ominous financial difficulties.

The Vulcan Gas Company closed, in part, due to its location on a crowded stretch of Congress Avenue. Young people who were not willing to pay the $1.50 cover charge would gather around the doorway and listen from the street. Some people bought marijuana from street dealers. Consequently, the Vulcan became associated with the illegal use of drugs and alcohol and rowdy street crowds. At times, Austin police officers would form a line in front of the Vulcan and make a sweep across the street and into the club, arresting suspects along the way.

Many stories are associated with the Vulcan. Besides its intriguing hole-in-the-wall entrance from H&R Block off of Fourth Street, the Vulcan sat atop a cistern that provided echo effects for experimenting musicians. The Vulcan's storefront windows often were covered by drapes that allowed people outside to peep through slits and holes to view strange window dressings featuring provocative mannequins, artwork, and lighting. After the Vulcan's popularity as a hangout for hippies made it increasingly unpopular with local authorities, Jim Franklin became convinced that he could save the Vulcan only by changing its name; the name he chose was Armadillo Gas Company. Although the plan was not successful, the armadillo, a regular feature in Franklin's posters, became the mascot of the Vulcan's successor, Armadillo World Headquarters, in 1970.

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